In July 2018 Anthem proudly boasted on its YouTube channel a full gameplay demo: a demo which was awarded E3’s “Best Action Game”. The 20 minute demo, narrated by Lead Producer, Ben Irving, showcased much of what Anthem professed to offer. Unfortunately for anyone who purchased the game in recent weeks - based solely on that gameplay - not only have vast swathes of it been left on the cutting room floor, but the product we now have infront of us is a rough, buggy, incoherent mess of what was promised.
Having officially launched on February 15, 2019, seven months after the video above, and to much media criticism due to its convoluted windows of early access, demos, and trials, it was immediately skewered by the majority of the gaming industry. Sat on a Metacritic average across all three platforms of 61%, and with a user score average of 4.2 (again across all platforms), it’s fair to say that its reception has been poor.
Having shifted around 40,000 copies in its first week in the UK, less than 10% of Destiny’s launch sales, but fairing significantly better in Japan (with around 78,000 units sold), it isn’t off to the strongest of retail starts. While it’s impossible to know how well it has performed as a digital download (I suspect most players likely dived in with Origin Premier) it looks unlikely to meet EA’s sales forecasts.
If you also factor in its PS4 woes, with the game reportedly bricking consoles, and with Sony having begun to issue refunds on digital purchases, it’s clear that Anthem’s launch has been far from stellar. Is the reaction justified, and what has gone wrong with its development?
The E3 Video
If we can pretend for a moment that Anthem hasn’t launched, and if we had just sat down to watch the 20 minute demonstration from July 2018, most people, I’m sure, would be be excited about what they’re seeing. A visually stunning dynamic gameworld, a map filled with exploration and life, high quality acting, cutscenes, a wide variety of content and creatures, powerful abilities, unique Javelins, in-depth dungeons, and original quests, all from the developers of Mass Effect, is a heady mix. The reality, as evidenced by what we now have in our hands, is very different.
With development lead time usually several months ahead of any playable build, it’s highly likely that by the time this playthrough surfaced, Bioware - with launch only 7 months away - had to be fully aware that the reality of what they were playing and due to ship, was very different to what was being shown to the public.
As demonstrated in the video, the axe was swung on a variety features that actually made Anthem desirable.
- On Ultra settings, many effects, planet life, and combat interactions are now entirely missing in comparison to what we see here.
- Striders were originally designed as a mobile base. This was dropped completely.
- Freelancer reinforcements makes it appear as though friends could join you mid-mission. This simply isn’t possible.
- Stronghold’s were discoverable within the game world, and could be entered freely. They now have to be loaded into from the mission select.
- The world was dynamic, and enemies interacted with each other instead of simply waiting for you to appear (they now stand completely idle and have no natural interactions with wildlife).
- Items that were dropped by enemies displayed which item typed you’d picked up, such as a pistol or rifle.
While these are major shifts in design, there are also smaller changes that seemingly make little sense:
- The world map and its colourisation has changed completely.
- Transition animations were dropped (such as entering a Stronghold from Freeplay)
- Mission markers were visible in Freeplay in the game world.
- Echos were holstered on your back, and were easily identified as to how many you were carrying. They now float around you, and look far worse.
- Flares had far greater clarity and effects.
Looking at the above, and only months away from launch, it begs the question: why did all these features hit the cutting room floor, and most importantly, was the Anthem that we saw in the video even real, or was it Colonial Marines 2.0?
Why Would Bioware Dump Key Features?
I have to admit that I’ve been thinking about this question since launch, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s only a few viable options:
- EA were unwilling to grant Bioware any additional development time, and as a result, told them that the game had to be ready for launch within six months. At this point, internal decisions were made to radically simplify the game, its mechanics and systems, in order to meet such a window.
- The Anthem E3 demo was never representative of “real” gameplay, and was a self-contained mock-up of what Bioware hoped Anthem could be, as a means of promoting the product.
- The Frostbite Engine was found to be unsuitable for the vision of a live-service product, that was heavily itemised. Considering its history, there is the potential that EA’s insistence on their studios using the engine crippled Anthem’s development. The engine was originally designed for first-person shooters, adapting it for a toolset that would support a loot-based third person shooter, that also happened to be a live platform, with dynamic content, enemies, dungeons and itemisation, was likely too much for the studio to remedy within the budget and time constraints laid down by EA.
There is the potential that Anthem’s woes involve one, some, or all of the above, but there’s no mistaking that what they demonstrated at E3, and what was delivered, verges on the dishonest.
With Ben Irving having taken to Reddit recently to discuss much of the above, after the community raised similar questions, his answer - as vague as it is - only leaves more questions.
The short answer is that the cost of transparency is things change. We did our best to be transparent on the journey to going live but with that we knew things would be different in some situations. Sometimes people would be happy and sometimes they would be upset.
It’s the cost of transparency.
Edit: to elaborate - game development is full of change. There are a million reasons why you set out with an idea and it evolves over time. This is common in every game. We shared as much as we could. Some things change. So the cost of transparency is that some things we said become not true, not because someone was dishonest but because it changed over the course of development.
While Ben discusses the cost of transparency, and suggests that game development is ever-changing, he fundamentally fails to detail what the reasons were behind lobotomizing the game 7 months out from launch, or where Bioware’s transparency comes from (I don’t recall ever seeing a developer post detailing the removal of 90% of the games’ features).
One of many features dropped by Anthem: the ability to loot, view and equip weapons in real-time.
Players are right to be pissed off, but the issues with Anthem go far deeper than what it does or doesn’t offer. At a very basic level, it’s a game awash with bad design decisions and ill thought out systems, that raises questions on whether it was ready for launch, and if the existing team are even able to steady the ship.
With the Frostbite engine having been designed with destruction and first-person shooters in mind, it’s evident that it’s ill-suited to a live service, third person, loot based title. Amy Hennig recently confirmed that the demise of an untitled Star Wars game was largely as a result of EA’s insistence that it switched to a live service model, but also that the Frostbite engine created its own challenges. Henning described trying to make a "cinematic traversal action game" in Frostbite as, "a hurdle."
Despite this unknown project being developed by Visceral (now defunct, and having merged with EA), it appears that even a studio of their pedigree couldn’t force a square peg in a round hole. Is it possible, then, that Bioware simply ran out of road when it came to implementing key features, largely due to engine that was running it?
Even with what we’re now left with, it looks as though Bioware have fallen into the same trap as they did with Mass Effect: Andromeda, fighting over engine hurdles that required extensive customisation, and a great deal of duct-tape.
In a brilliant editorial by the fantastic Jason Schreier, he talks at length about the difficulties Bioware experienced when making Anthem’s predecessor, but also the challenges the studio faced when it came to Frostbite.
When BioWare first got its hands on Frostbite, the engine wasn’t capable of performing the basic functions you’d expect from a role-playing game, like managing party members or keeping track of a player’s inventory. BioWare’s coders had to build almost everything from scratch.
By the time BioWare entered pre-production on Mass Effect: Andromeda, the Dragon Age: Inquisition team had built some of the tools that they’d need to make an RPG, but not all of them. Engineers on Andromeda had to design many of their own features from scratch, including their animation rig.
What’s quickly apparent, when you then begin to compare both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem, is that both games share undeniable parallels, and engine issues aside, there’s a mounting sense of dejavu between the pair. You could quite easily read Giant Bomb’s review of Mass Effect: Andromeda and be convinced they were critiquing Anthem.
It’s Missing The Basics
As many suspect, and largely unhelped by the Frostbite engine, Anthem ignores the very basics players have come to expect from online, multiplayer titles. The lack of a mini-map, chat functionality, an attributes page, waypoint markers, or even joining your friends in real-time, when they’re on an existing mission, all serve to frustrate: in this day and age, it’s inexcusable. Even the Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which many cite as the reason for Anthem lacking text or voice functionality (heck, even a chat wheel), really shouldn’t have been a hurdle. With Bioware launching Anthem after the Despite CCVA waiver extension expired, it’s more likely that they simply couldn’t make communication options work in Frostbite, or foolishly didn’t design for it from the offset. You only have to look at what Respawn achieved with Apex Legends and its communication tools, and realize that the key difference between the two - despite them both launching in the same month - is that one was built using the Source Engine. I think that speaks volumes.
Itemisation and End Game
As a loot-based game akin to any other in the genre (Diablo, Destiny or The Division), the value of loot, its frequency and the pursuit of it, should be at the forefront of design. Unfortunately for Anthem, not only does it fail to provide the basics of what players need, but also fails spectacularly when it comes to the maths surrounding itemisation. With a megathread on the official Reddit highlighting thousands of complaints about its loot system, combined with weapon scaling woes that proved laughably tragic, and evidence that proves anything above Grand Master 1 is not only pointless from a farming perspective, is there any wonder players are pissed off?
If you also factor in the idiocy of its Inscription system, the fact loot drop rates don’t even reflect or correlate to difficulties available, it’s not surprising to see a first wave of week-long protests has been planned. At this point, not only is apparent that the Frostbite engine is yet again woefully ill suited for this genre, but that Bioware have intentionally obfuscated on much of the games’ core design decisions because they’ve no idea how their numbers work, or aren’t sure how to fix it.
Without a robust end game and without loot that’s attainable and appropriately scaled, the value of farming - and farming higher difficulties - renders the game entirely pointless. When Anthem doesn’t even provide you with the items necessary to play the difficulties available, why play?
As it stands, my Ranger sits at ilvl 625 after the recent scaling changes, and yet I still don’t deal enough damage to reliably farm Grand Master 2 difficulties (in part due to shoddy one-shot mechanics, lazy bullet sponge design and the fact Epic Components are better for my Javelin than Masterwork). How, then, am I supposed complete this content effectively, when Inscriptions are proven to not give me the damage bonuses I need? Simply put, even if my entire team and I had a full set of Legendary weapons, abilities and Components, we still wouldn’t deal enough damage in GM3 to farm it at an equivalent speed to GM1. If you also factor in loot tables, and the realization that end-bosses have fixed drops, is there any wonder players are exasperated by this shoddy design?
Anthem’s entire itemisation and the systems that supports it, actively discourages you from playing. Even if Bioware showered players with items, it still wouldn’t change the fact that god rolls on Inscriptions, and its additive damage model, is not up to par. Simply put, Anthem’s loot system is the complete opposite of what a loot-based title should be doing.
Besides encountering a Titan or Ursix, there's nothing of value in the game world.
Anthem looks wonderful on Ultra settings, but there’s no mistaking that its world is a lifeless box which offers little more than scale and solid architecture. Despite all the promise displayed in its early promotional footage, there’s nothing of value in its world. With events that are repetitive and brief, hidden “dungeons” that are identical, and a choice of biome that quickly becomes repetitious, Anthem is sadly devoid of life. Where there was once hope that enemies would go about their business, or that the game world would be filled to the brim with events not too dissimilar to Guild Wars 2, there’s simply nothing here. With the exception of some stunning vistas, a handful of repetitive missions which reward terrible loot is hardly exciting.
Anthem can’t survive on three Stronghold’s alone, and if all that’s then left is Freeplay, the likelihood of long term retention is pretty dire. Fundamentally, there’s only so much blind flying you can do before you get bored.
Performance and Disconnects
Like many, Anthem not only runs like a dogs dinner, but regularly boots me to the login screen. Some of those connection issues were my side (I ended up buying a new router), but many - even now - are all down to EA. Not only that, but despite running a fairly robust PC that comfortably handles the majority of games at 60fps on Ultra settings, it’s disheartening to fall far short here. No amount of tweaks, driver changes, or overclocking has helped, and it’s clear I’m not alone. Installed on an SSD, with a 1080ti, 16GB of DDR4, and an overclocked i5 8400K, I really shouldn’t be dragging 30fps in Fort Tarsis with loading times long enough that I could run a marathon in the time it takes to get into a mission.
At this point in time, it feels as though Bioware need to come out from the shadows and say, “You know what guys, we fucked up. Anthem wasn’t ready, here’s a list of all the issues we know it has, and here’s how we’re going to fix them.” It’s simply not good enough to charge a premium subscription (or $60.00) for a product that’s in this much of a mess.
Can you have fun in Anthem? Absolutely. Does it offer long-term fun? Not in the slightest. Once you’ve zipped through the story, and when you begin to understand its loot system, and what the end-game actually offers, it’s immediately apparent that the games is all window dressing. Heck, I've barely even discussed crafting and how mechanically, it's terrible.
With little depth - whether mechanical or through itemisation - and with its difficulty determined purely by health pools, it begs the question as to what Bioware have been doing for 6 years, and why they launched Anthem in the state it’s in. I find it hard to believe that it’s all EA, and based on the stewardship of the development team since it launched, I’m not entirely convinced they know how to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in.
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